The goal may be be clear, but the details continue to bedevil the Palo Alto City Council, which struggled on Monday night to reach a consensus about a proposed cap on new office development.
In its longest meeting of the year, the council debated the specifics of an ordinance that the entire council endorsed earlier this year -- one that would limit new office and research-and-development space in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real to 50,000 square feet annually.
While the council agreed on Monday on several crucial details, it ran into a stalemate on a technical question with far-reaching implications: Should the cap apply to portions of the city where the council plans to perform "coordinated area plans" aimed at crafting a community vision for land use?
With Councilman Tom DuBois recusing himself from the discussion, the council agonized over the question and after four separate 4-4 votes, agreed to punt the question to the Planning and Transportation Commission.
The council's discussion underscored the complex nature of the office-cap proposal, which was prompted by a recent surge of development in the city's most prominent commercial areas. Since 2001, the California Avenue district has added 234,002 square feet of office space, while downtown saw its share go up by 31,586 square feet. The trend has accelerated in the last four years, with several dense new developments around California Avenue winning approval, frustrating residents who have seen the traffic and parking conditions in the area deteriorate.
To remedy the situation, the council is pursuing an "urgency ordinance" that would contain growth and establish a competitive process for evaluating new projects. Over the course of what at times was a tense discussion, the council reached consensus on an exemption for office projects smaller than 2,000 square feet, another exemption for small medical offices and the criteria for evaluating competing office projects.
The council also agreed to apply the cap to most of the projects currently going through the city's application process. Despite a sharp disagreement over the subject, council members reached a compromise in which these projects will receive preference during the selection process.
Yet the council struggled and ultimately hit a stalemate over the question of coordinated area plans, such as the one that the city conducted for the South of Forest Area more than a decade ago and the one that it plans to perform for the area around Fry's Electronics. That question will now be evaluated by the planning commission and will then return to the council later in the year.
During Monday night's discussion, the council fell into two camps: Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach championed flexibility and favored exempting area plans from the office cap; Pat Burt, Eric Filseth, Mayor Karen Holman and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid favored a stricter approach with clearer limits and fewer exemptions. These council members argued that carving out an exemption for area plans is premature at best and ill-advised at worst.
Scharff and Berman also supported exempting projects that have already spent more than a year in the city's planning process, with Scharff arguing that including them in the cap so late in the game would be "blatantly unfair."
While the former group suggested that this would give the community and developers the needed flexibility to create the kind of projects that the city wants to see, the latter group countered that this exemption would effectively raise the cap and render it less meaningful.
Wolbach, the chief proponent of flexibility, said excluding area plans from the cap would give developers an incentive to get involved in these community efforts. This would lead them to understand what the residents and the council want and to design their projects accordingly.
"The idea is to encourage developers to start the city's process of planning with a community-centric vision rather than a developer-centric vision," Wolbach said.
Burt countered that this would be a significant exemption and suggested that the council discuss it at a separate meeting, when it would have more time to deliberate. He characterized the proposal to exempt these areas as "chipping away" at the process that the entire council agreed on on March 31.
Filseth asserted that by excluding these areas, the council would be basically adding to the cap. If the community decides, for instance, to add 30,000 square feet to the Fry's site and the square footage does not count against the 50,000-square-foot cap, the "unintended consequence" is that the cap essentially gets raised to 80,000 square feet.
Wolbach, however, said that most of the complaints coming from the public revolve around parking, traffic and the city's high ratio of jobs to employed residents. If developers propose projects that completely take care of these impacts, they should be allowed to build, he argued. Projects of this sort would have to include housing and robust transportation-demand-management programs that discourage occupants from driving.
"I'm talking about setting a high bar," Wolbach said. "I don't think we should be afraid of having very high standards."
Berman agreed that this approach is worth pursuing.
"I do think we have a lack of housing in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley as a whole," Berman said. "I do think a development cap, as was mentioned by a lot of people tonight, is a blunt tool. This is a way to use the blunt tool to our advantage."
The proposal initially split the council, though members ultimately agreed to raise the bar even higher and only exempt projects that not only mitigate their own impacts but also improve the overall traffic and parking conditions in the their respective areas.
Burt suggested that the city "may not get any projects that meet the requirements" but ended up backing this proposal as part of a 6-2 vote, with Schmid and Filseth dissenting.
"This is the kind of competition we want to create on really exceptional projects that would be what we need in the future to have development without exacerbation of our current problems," Burt said.
Filseth disagreed and called the proposed exemption "too vague."
"We don't even have this ordinance yet and we're already putting exemptions and loopholes in it," Filseth said. "It's too soon."
Another big disagreement came over the topic of projects in the pipeline. The battle lines were generally the same, with the slow-growth "residentialist camp" supporting including these projects in the cap. For one of these projects, a three-story mixed-use building at 441 Page Mill Road, this proved to be a moot point after the council voted to approve it early Tuesday morning. For the rest, the vote means that getting the city's approval just became trickier.
Projects that have been going through the process for many months but have not yet received approval include a 28,200-square-foot project at 2747 Park Blvd. and a 29,120-square-foot project at 3045 Park Blvd.
Scharff said that he was "very uncomfortable" with the council's decision to include them in the cap.
"I want to understand if it's OK to be arbitrary and capricious if we did this," Scharff said, using adjectives that connote a legal standard for unreasonable denial of applications.
Holman countered that the two Park Boulevard projects are among the biggest in the pipeline and that the city should not approve them before putting together a broader concept plan for the California Avenue area, a process that has been moving along in fits and starts for nearly a decade.
"We're developing the site without having a plan in place," said Holman.
The council ultimately reached a compromise in which projects would be subject to the cap but would be given preference if they had been going through the planning process for a year or more. Schmid was the sole dissenter in the 7-1 vote.